Adapted from cult Belgian liberal-baiting novelist Herman Brusselmans’ book, Ex-Drummer is the story of a disabled Ostend punk band who recruit a famous liberal-baiting novelist to be their drummer.
As can be expected from such a premise there are moments of black humour, although the juvenile ‘big dick’ jokes and cartoon violence predominate. It’s directed with style and panache (perhaps too much style and panache) by Koen Mortier who seems to have attended the same school of ‘experimental’ cinema as Tony Kaye and Danny Boyle. His background in TV commercials and pop promos is there for all to see as a barrage of inventive shots and sequences follow one another endlessly. The opening is visually stunning and quite brilliant. The sequence runs backwards, showing the band cycling to (or from) the drummer Dries’ stylish apartment, stopping briefly to help a bus driver to his feet before beating him up. The titles imaginatively appear as adverts, road signs and discarded magazines. It ends with an upside down shot of singer Koen back in his apartment, like a bat in his cave. However, the total effect of this bag-of-tricks style is rather nullifying; what is well suited to 30-second adverts or 3-minute pop videos becomes somewhat tiresome over 104 minutes.
There is little plot barring that staple of the pop music film, the ‘battle of the bands’ competition. The main narrative drive is the unfolding of a catalogue of political incorrectness – homophobic attacks, rape, battery, misogyny and child abuse. There’s even a short racist rant just to make sure all the boxes are ticked. The band are ironically christened ‘The Feminists’, although they are disappointed when they realise they’ve been outdone in the offensive-name stakes by rival band Nine Million Jews (‘Why didn’t we think of that?’). The right-wing anti-PC nature of all this makes me wonder if it is possible to be shocking and non-reactionary (the films of Alan Clarke maybe?) but perhaps it depends on who you are trying to shock.
The DVD has a cover bearing laurels from the Rotterdam International Film Festival – perhaps a plea for the film’s artistic merit to be taken seriously (surely the Tartan label is enough). But perhaps the fact that it is a subtitled Belgian film (and thus unlikely to inspire ASBOs) has been enough to prevent calls from The Daily Mail to ‘ban this filth’.
At first, it seems as though Dries, the novelist/drummer, will be our bourgeois guide on this tour through the underworld. But instead of providing the audience with a ‘normal’ viewpoint, he soon turns out to be an abusive bully, and the worst of them all in many ways. But despite the lack of any character with even a hint of a belief system or a value the film is simply too entertaining and too silly to achieve the heights of nihilism of, say, Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small. Although I must say that the utter pointlessness of playing in a band certainly rings true.
Despite enough internal band fights to rival The Troggs, The Feminists manage to rehearse a decent version of Devo’s ‘Mongoloid’ (once the deaf guitarist stops shouting his backing vocals) and actually start to sound quite good. The soundtrack features a pretty great selection of Belgian indie, punk and new wave bands (as well as others such as Mogwai) and was for me the highlight of the film. The Feminists’ music is performed by real-life Flemish punks Millionaire.
The DVD comes with an excellent warts-and-all making-of documentary, which shows director Koen Mortier being every bit as disagreeable as any of the characters in the film. With this, his debut feature, he has certainly made his mark (or at least marked his territory) although he’s less one to watch than one to watch out for.